– Mohammad Belal Hossain Chowdhury
Commissioner, Custom House Benapole
As a part of regular practice our Editor Khaled Mahmood seeks interview with personalities of high rank and file in the national perspective. Recently he approached Mohammad Belal Hossain, Commissioner of Customs, Custom House Benapole for an interview. The Commissioner replied the questions put to him on various aspects of revenue collections, problems associated with the administration in the land port and other situations he has to face. His replies are direct, un-equivocal and elaborate that may help our readers have a good idea about the functions and functionaries of the biggest and most important land port with Indian border. Here follows the interview proceedings:
Question-1: You are working at Custom House Benapole for about a year. Would you kindly tell us about your success and failure?
Answer: It has now been almost one and half a year that I have been working at Custom House Benapole as Commissioner of Customs. This has been an eventful period of reformation and innovation for Custom House Benapole. I feel extremely happy and delighted that I have been involved in producing an epoch-making period of remarkable success stories exuding a spirited sense of happiness among the stakeholders and my own inspired team members. My team members are the source of my strength. They have played an instrumental role in the successes that we have attained. I must also acknowledge the good and bold support that I have received from National Board of Revenue. In addition, I highly appreciate the supportive role of the C&F agents, other government and non-government stakeholders, Indian customs and specially the people of Benapole as a whole. Our successes have been the fruits of the combined efforts of all related parties. Some of our success stories are mentioned below:
As for my failure, I have nothing much to say. I will be happy to fulfill revenue target this fiscal year, because last year there was shortfall from the target. I wanted to introduce a single software system for both Bangladesh and India for the completion of Customs procedures. However, it is to be implemented through a project. ADB is conducting feasibility study in this respect. Hopefully, some day it will be implemented.
Question-2: Benapole Custom House is an old and big land port with India. What import and export goods usually pass through this port?
Answer: You are right that Benapole is the oldest land port in the country. It is the largest land port of the country as well. All legally importable items (as per Import Policy Order) are allowed to be imported through this port, except cotton and milk powder. Similarly, all legally exportable items (as per Export Policy Order) are allowed to be exported through this port.
Question-3: Reports say in media that various contra banned items of goods are very often smuggled through this border port. Do you agree with the matter? How you have been successful in checking the evil practice by your Custom House?
Answer: Well, I agree with the matter that sometimes some ill-intentioned parties try to smuggle contra banned items into Bangladesh through this border port. But we are always alert to stop any such evil efforts. Recently we have detained two consignments of viagra powder (Sildenafil Citrate) while being smuggled into Bangladesh by way of misdeclarations. I received information from secret intelligence sources about the evil effort of smuggling viagra. First I got information about 200 kg viagra powder being smuggled in the name of declaring food flavour. But our chemical lab rightly reported it as Sildenafil Citrate. For further confirmation, we sent it for testing to KUET and its report was the same as ours. It was almost at the same time we detained a large consignment of 2,500 kg viagra powder based on receiving secret information from the intelligence sources. It was detained just at the moment of the consignment being delivered from the port. This consignment was declared as Sodium Starch Glycolate. First we tested it at our lab and the report was as Sildenafil Citrate. Then we sent the sample to KUET and the report was the same as ours. For further confirmation we sent the sample to BCSIR, BUET and Drug Testing Laboratory of Bangladesh. Drugs Administration, BCSIR reported it as being Sodium Starch Glycolate, BUET failed to identify the product. But Drug Testing Laboratory report identified it as Sildenafil Citrate. It involved huge efforts on our part to detect this type of health hazardous items. I received huge pressure from some lobbyist groups to release the goods as per declarations. But as I did not do that, they came hard to damage my image through media reports and anonymous fabricated letters submitted to ACC and some other offices including NBR with allegations on my amassing huge illegal wealth. NBR investigated the issue and found the allegations completely absurd and concocted.
Question-4: What is the volume of goods that are exported and imported through this port yearly? How much revenue you can collect per year here?
Answer: Trade and commerce of yearly around 30 thousand crore taka takes place through this port. Last year we collected revenue more than 5 thousand crore taka. This year we are relentlessly working for collecting revenue more than 6 thousand crore taka.
Question-5: What is the revenue target for the current fiscal year (2019-20)?
Answer:The revenue target for the current fiscal year is Taka 6028.35 crore.
Question-6: Reports appear in various media and victims also say that the people who pass through this port are harassed by a few outsiders of Benaople Check Post. Have you taken any action against the accused persons?
Answer: As I have already said, before my joining at Custom House Benapole, ICP was a den of the brokers who used to assist the passengers in the cross-border movement in exchange of money. Passengers faced harassment in the hands of these brokers for excessive charge of money. If they were not satisfied, they harassed the passengers by looting their valuables including money and golds. These people were also involved in illegal activities like unlawful baggage clearance by deceiving the customs officials. I took immediate steps to drive the brokers out from the ICP. Now they cannot enter into ICP premises and harass the passengers any longer.
Question-7: There is a complaint that goods are imported-exported through over-invoicing and under-invoicing in connivance with a group of Customs officials. What preventive measures have you so far taken against the offender to stop this evil practice?
Answer: This complaint that my officials have connivance in over-invoicing and under- invoicing has no merit at all. Goods are exported and imported by the exporters and the importers. My officials examine and assess the goods vis-a-vis the declarations made by the business people. Assessment of the goods is completed based on the minimum value SRO, our ASYCUDA valuation database and Customs Valuation SRO of 2000. We strictly monitor over-invoicing and under-invoicing matter and go tough if anybody is found guilty. We have a post clearance audit team to look after any aberrations in value declarations. If any under-invoicing is found, immediate action is taken by issuing demand notice for the repayment of the unpaid amount.
Question-8: There is a public perception that after you have joined this Custom House, you have taken several reformative steps in your Customs activities. Would you kindly tell us about the reforms you have implemented?
Answer: Yes, a lot of reform initiatives I have so far taken to synchronize and modernize our activities at Custom House Benapole. The following are some of the reform and innovative initiatives mentioned to satisfy the interests of the readers:
• Launched Bypass road on February 2018 for the exit of maximum number of consignments
• Benapole’s main road has been freed from traffic congestion
• Introduced Benapole Customs Education Forum (BCEF)
• Strengthening partnership and reciprocity with Indian Customs
• 32 committees formed on overall reforms and development of Benapole
• Opening of Link Road 1 and 2 to increase trade volume with India
• Allowed access of all items through link road-1
• Bold Partnership with Petrapole Land Port and CWC Authority
• Introduction of new website www.bch.gov.bd
• Continuous digital Announcement at ICP for assisting passengers
•Introduction of BENAPASS software to digitalize entry of carpass details, thus reducing time and cost of the business people
• Setting up of a VIVER group of around 200 officials ensuring all-time connectivity
• creating a Facebook page with 34 thousand followers, which was initially a page of only 489 followers
• Introduction of syndicate-free and open online auction system with the help of National Board of Revenue
• Modernization of ICP making it hassle-free for the passengers with relocation of Customs Hall and setting up divider for the incoming and outgoing passengers and making it free from brokers and outsiders
• Arrangement of 100 Trolley for easy carriage of passenger baggage
• Folder system introduced for reducing assessment time
• Introduction of “D” mark system effecting direct delivery of more than 80% cargos based on risk management system
• Regular In-house Training on Assessment, Evaluation and Audit
• Setting up Unstuffing Division for better control on the delivery of goods
• Formation of an IRM (Investigation, Research and Management) team for detecting tax evasion cases
• Special initiative taken to complete construction of Benapole office building
• New design produced for Benapole Custom House of 2050
• Installation of flood lights at the playground
• Safe drinking water ensured from the municipality
• Inauguration of new mobile scanner etc.
Question-9: What is the number of exporters and importers in this port? How they co-operate you in handling the goods properly in the national interest?
Answer: A big number of almost 500 importers and exporters are involved in export and import through this port. Efficiency of Benapole port is increasing rapidly.
Hence, this number will certainly go up soon. National interest is the top priority for my officials. We ensure that business people should also place national interest above their personal gains. We are receiving maximum cooperation from the business community.
Question-10: How the various public or private organizations engaged in this port co-operate you in doing your duty?
Answer: Mutual cooperation among various organizations is a must to be successful in the smooth running of an office. I always try to maintain good relations with my stakeholders, both public and private. Regularly I meet with them and sort out the problems, if any. A monthly meeting of an Advisory Council consisting of public officials and stakeholders from the private organizations including C & F Agents Association is held and proposals from the members of the Council are implemented to ensure smooth operations.
Question-11: How the law enforcement agencies like BGB, Police, Ansars or Intelligence Branch personnel help you in accomplishing your functions at this port?
Answer: Happily I would like to say that we have warm relations and good rapport with the enforcement agencies like BGB, Police, Ansars and other intelligence personnel. We receive their all-out support in doing our work.
Question-12: How the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) co-operate you in discharging your duty at this border land port?
Answer: BSF plays an important role in the bilateral trade between our two countries. They provide security to border areas like our BGB. Both these forces operate to stop illegal trade through the porous border other than the legally demarcated customs stations. Their role is important in increasing legal trade through the border stations. Benapole Customs hence always maintains good relations with BSF, also with BGB.
Question-13: Would you kindly say what are the major items of goods that are exported from Bangladesh and imported from India?
Answer: Major goods of export from Bangladesh are raw jute, jute items, ready-made garments, wooden furniture, tat sharee & lungi,cotton rags, soaps,fish, paper items, plastic furniture, caustic soda, travel bags etc.
Major goods of import from India are fabrics, ready-made garments, bi-cycle & auto-parts, chassis, sponge iron, other iron items, capital machineries, chemical items, food items, agricultural items etc.
Question-14: Balance of payments of Bangladesh with India is always unfavorable. Would you tell us about the value of exports of Bangladesh to India and that of imports of Bangladesh from India?
Answer: Yes, it’s true that there is a huge gap in balance of payments between Bangladesh and India. However, we are effectively trying to increase export from our side so that this gap comes down gradually. Recently, export to India has increased positively. Total amount of export value for the last fiscal year was almost 5219 crore taka compared to around 3982 taka in 2017-18 and total amount of import value from India was around 25 thousand crore taka.
Question-15: It appeared in the media reports that you were called by the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) in the early September for interrogation about the alleged charges of corruption by misuse of official power that helped you to amass huge illegal wealth and money. Please tell us how you defended yourself before the Anti Corruption Commission?
Answer: This is completely a baseless allegation against me that I have amassed huge wealth and money through misuse of power. I have already mentioned the kind of reformative and innovative initiatives that I have taken for the modernization of our customs activities at this port. I have also mentioned effective steps that I have taken to facilitate trade without any hassle and undue barrier. These initiatives and steps led Benapole Customs to be awarded World Bank award in Customs modernization on January 26, 2019. However, a vested quarter came harsh on me with allegations that I have misused my power to gain huge wealth and resources. This happened when this particular group failed to evade huge sum of government revenue by imposing pressure on me. They wrote fabricated letters to ACC and some other offices. NBR investigated the allegations and found no truth. ACC is investigating the matter and for this purpose they called me recently to appear in an interview. I defended myself well, because I know that all these are purposive allegations without any essence. A similar kind of allegation was put up against me and ACC issued wealth statement in 2009 and I was cleared from that allegation by ACC.E